Nice & the French Riviera: Introduction

  • © mima2236,

    © mima2236,


The French Riviera, or the Côte d’Azur, is a region of contrasts. On the coast: idyllic beaches, glamorous hotels and exotic flowers set against the grandiose natural spectacle of dramatic mountains and peaceful villages. These contrasting attributes, its mild Mediterranean climate and its many hours of sunshine attract millions of visitors a year to the Riviera. They are also the reasons why Grasse, the world's perfume capital, found its niche here and why more than 20,000 people choose to work in the Sophia Antipolis technology park outside Antibes.

The magnificent Riviera is a world leader in international tourism. Nowhere else in Europe has a stretch of land undergone as much change over the past 200 years as the region between Toulon in the west, Menton in the east, and the Grand Canyon du Verdon and Parc National du Mercantour in the north. For centuries this area was relegated to being a thoroughfare between northern Europe and Italy with little more than struggling fishermen on the coast and dirt poor farmers inland.

Small wonder then that today there is hardly any evidence of the architectural highlights from its dim past. Those that do remain are the obvious ones, some traces of Roman occupation in Fréjus and a victory monument for Emperor Augustus in La Turbie, just north of Monaco. However, by the 17th century the County of Nice (which became French in 1860) had become a base for artists and architects of the baroque period.

Nowadays the once long forgotten villages like Ste-Croix, Grimaud and Bormes-les-Mimosas have retained their architectural charm, with no unsightly buildings to spoil the charming village squares. Saorge in the Roya valley and La Garde-Freinet in the Massif des Maures were woken from their deep sleep by new residents that had both money and taste – today both villages epitomise stylishness with no expense spared. Then there are also villages like Villecroze, a beautifully restored, flower bedecked idyll with pretty squares and fountains. 

The Riviera – a child of a modern leisure seeking society

The coast owes its name to author Stephen Liégeard who published his book ‘La Côte d’Azur’ in 1887. Today the Côte d’Azur, or French Riviera, is synonymous with a leisure-loving society. All that counts is the here and now: the azure sea, blue skies and sunshine – plenty of it. Visitors from England first discovered its mild climate in the mid 19th century, turning Hyères, Nice and Cannes into the first ever international holiday destinations.

The European aristocracy followed suit, arriving to seek refuge from dire winters, making the Riviera their playground. This high society would become instrumental in turning the region into the artistic ‘garden of Eden’ that it is today. In 1857 the locals looked on in disbelief as Parisian botanist Gustave Thuret began cultivating palms, cacti, cypresses and eucalyptus trees at Cap d’Antibes. Today the exotic mimosa trees (an import and not indigenous) make a deep yellow flower spectacle in late winter. They are as integral to the identity of the Riviera today as are the azure blue sea, the deep green Aleppo pines and the bright yellows of  Menton’s lemon trees.

Complementing this lavish flora is the region's architecture. The cosmopolitan chic in-crowd of yesteryear built their palatial abodes without taking into account the architectural styles of the day and there are numerous examples of this: Monte Carlo Casino designed by Opera de Paris architect Charles Garnier; the imposing façades of the luxury Negresco and Carlton hotels in Nice and Cannes respectively; Baroness Ephrussi de Rothschild’s palazzo-style villa in Cap Ferrat; the Greek-style Villa Kérylos in Beaulieu; and the modernist villa built for the Noaille art patron family in Hyères.

An important time in the history of the French Riviera has to be the belle époque that began in the early 20th century – in the winter. It is hard to believe that it was only in 1931 that a number of courageous hotel owners opened their doors in the summer months for the first time. That season was too hot for the old aristocracy but today the Riviera lives off summer tourism. In July and August everything is in full swing and packed to the hilt – its restaurants, clubs, streets, hotels, camping sites and magnificent bays.

Prices rise as fast as the temperatures and you will struggle to find parking near famous beaches like St-Tropez. Once an inconspicuous fishing village, Impressionist artists put it on the map around 1900, and in 1950 it became synonymous with the international jet set. The first iconic figures to arrive were authors from Paris, followed by a variety of French celebrities like Roger Vadim, Brigitte Bardot and Johnny Hallyday. Tanning at their favourite beaches – Pampelonne or Tahiti – they attracted the tabloid press ever hungry for a new scandal.

Far from the madding crowd – secluded bays beckon

The rich and famous now avoid the drive around the coast of St-Tropez, with its bumper to bumper summer traffic. This volume of traffic has resulted in the St-Tropez peninsula campaigning against mass tourism. Drastic new building restrictions have been imposed to conserve the beauty of the coastal strip and its stunning natural landscape.

Even though it may seem unlikely, there are still a few isolated and secluded bays to swim in, even in peak season. Despite the fact that the St-Tropez peninsula is the playground of Europe’s multi-millionaires, its beaches are all open to the public. These beaches, where the offspring of the wealthy hold their champagne parties today, are set to be future models for nature conservation and environmental protection.

Conservatoire du Littoral is making it its mission to save in St-Tropez that which has already been lost between Cannes and Nice. This has come about thanks to the awareness that there is more to this coastline than a leisure seeking paradise for a few months of the year. Instead it is a gift of nature whose fauna and flora must be respected and conserved.

Save our planet – an entire village thinks green

This environmental awareness also infiltrated the agricultural sector, with wine makers being the first to reject pesticides and artificial fertilizers in favour of organic methods. The most striking success story is the village of Correns whose wine farming mayor, Michael Latz, changed over to organic farming for economic reasons. Beforehand, the white wines cultivated in the traditionally commercial way were sold off cheaply to wholesalers and profits barely covered the costs of the process.

By changing to organic cultivation, the viticulturists of the region opened up a previously untapped niche market. Today they are the proud producers behind the Correns label, sold at affordable prices across Europe. Nowadays most of the produce from Correns is organic and its markets are full of once-forgotten fruits and vegetables – tomatoes and apricots have never tasted better!

Away from the coast is the grandiose splendour of the gorges that the Verdon, Var, Loup and Roya rivers have carved into the rocky terrain. Popular with the adventurous – who come to hike, rent kayaks and climb – villages like Aiglun and Roquestéron north of Grasse and Vence specialise in tourism focussed on water sports and hiking. From the spectacular bright red rock Gorge du Cian it is only a short stretch to the Mercantour National Park – where wolves have made a comeback – and then it is only a two-hour drive to the coastline.

Discover the French Riviera’s coastline and three of France’s most beautiful départements (administrative regions): Alpes-Maritimes, Var and Alpes-de-Haute-Provence. Hugging the coast, this travel guide will take you on a journey from Toulon to Menton, and both motorists and hikers alike are in for some very spectacular sights. Département Var is home to a stretch of over 250 km (155 mi) of the Sentier Littoral, the coastal hiking trail between Bandol and St-Raphaël. So pack your hiking boots and swimming costume and explore the azure coast of contrasts!

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